106 – Baldur’s Gate 2 – Watcher’s Keep

iuIncluded with your purchase of the Baldur’s Gate 2 expansion Throne of Bhaal is a towering dungeon called Watcher’s Keep. Continuing with Baldur’s Gate 2’s theme of “Bioware becoming Bioware”, it’s a very modern DLC-style dungeon in that it’s unconnected to the main plot and you can get to it at any time–as soon as Baldur’s Gate 2 gives you map access, you can visit it.

You are, of course, not quite intended to–it’s a decidedly high-level dungeon, with tricksy and difficult enemies–but it’s also the kind of thing where each floor is harder than the last, and so you can and are encouraged to duck into it from time to time, clear out a floor, and revel in bonus treasure and XP. I cleared out the first two floors during Chapter 2–got a couple of awesome weapons and some quivers that gave me infinite arrows–did the third as part of Chapter 6, and finished the rest of the thing as part of Throne of Bhaal.

It’s not quite an old-school megadungeon–depending on your definition, Watcher’s Keep is missing some screwjobs, missing dead ends, missing floors connecting to other floors, missing size (it’s big but not Castle Greyhawk big)–but it’s close. It’s certainly the purest Baldur’s Gate 2 comes to good old-fashioned dungeon crawling, and dungeon crawling is something I am fond of. I admire Icewind Dale’s purity–that it’s a huge bucket of monsters and caves and you’ve got to hack your way through–and Watcher’s Keep seems to be Bioware showing off a bit, one-upping it. Baldur’s Gate 1’s dungeons pretty much suck–the corridors are too tight, the puzzles fiddly–and the developer, perhaps worried that Black Isle showed in Icewind Dale that it understood the Infinity Engine a bit better than they did, stepped up their game for the sequel. I have no idea how much friendly competition led to Watcher’s Keep, but I like to think it set the stage for Icewind Dale 2 which, as I’ve said, i remember as a series of mostly wonderful gimmick dungeons. I love gimmick dungeons. We’ll eventually get to Icewind Dale 2.

Each of the floors of Watcher’s Keep has its own twist, its own style of play. The first has you finding items for a ritual. The second is a series of elemental wizard laboratories that you have to turn on each other to exploit weaknesses. There’s a maze that you have to interpret a poem to navigate. The best one focuses on a gigantic magical machine that summons monsters and the creature war this has inadvertently caused. Combat in all of these is tough but very fair, very balanced–assuming your party is, you know, appropriately leveled. There are a lot of enemies, but it’s an appropriate amount. One of my problems with Icewind Dale’s DLC dungeon Trials of the Luremaster, if you remember, was that it confused “challenge” for “throw a dozen enemies at you and hope you survive, good luck!”, and it was the worst part of the game. I don’t claim to be the finest gamer out there, but I’ve been playing RPGs for 30 years, and I’m very familiar with the Infinity Engine, and I’m not bad at playing games made in it. Luremaster was beyond my abilities, and even as I’ve noticed a lot of improvements in my own skills after playing through the Baldur’s Gate saga–one thing this replay of the Infinity Engine series has done has massively improve my ability to play Infinity Engine games–I still don’t know how one would deal with the swarms of spectral knights in the higher levels of the castle. At no point in Watcher’s Keep did I feel that I was above my pay grade.

Well, save for one of the final dungeon battles–there’s one swarm that’s maybe two combatants too many–and the final boss.

I’m generally a fellow who likes boss monsters, but I know plenty of people who hate them, and most of those people cut their teeth on Infinity Engine games. Bosses in Infinity Engine games are generally terrible–other than Irenicus, there aren’t many that I’ve actually liked. A boss can be a challenge, a test of your skills, a final exam, an opportunity for new attack patterns that don’t fit anywhere else. Games like Zelda are known for their bosses because they’re puzzles as much as they’re combats–you can’t beat a Zelda boss unless you’ve mastered the use of the tool that their dungeon has spent its time teaching you. Dark Souls’s bosses are notable for their size, for the opportunity for the design team to visually just go balls-out and create something elaborate, and for their extreme challenge.

Much less beloved are the boss monsters who just have, you know, super high HP and defense and attack. I remember, in fifth grade, a friend used to draw out videogames in his notebook–little platformer levels where he’d tear off a tiny scrap of paper and draw a character on it and you’d physically move the character through the level, stomping other scraps of paper with enemies on it. And whenever he wanted to give a real challenge, he’d create a boss–what he called a Big Monster, which now that I think of it is a much less capitalist way of referring to it so in true Socialist fashion I’m going to just steal the term–and write “99999 HP” over it and punch your character twice and say “oh you’re dead now”.

For the most part, that’s how Big Monsters in Infinity Engine RPGs feel to me. The Infinity Engine’s greatest trick–seen with Sarevok and Belifet–is to give their Big Monsters a few flunkies and string a bunch of (possibly impossible-to-disarm) traps around them and laugh as they slaughter your party. The Big Monster at the end of Watcher’s Keep–Demogorgon, making a cameo from his appearance in Stranger Things, although with a radically different design that makes me wonder if the makers of Watchers Keep even watched Stranger Things or, if they did, they just thought the name sounded cool and swiped it without worrying whether or not their monster shared any properties with the Duffer Brothers’–doesn’t have any traps in his room, but otherwise he fits the pattern. He hits hard, he soaks up a bunch of damage, he’s resistant to most magic–and given the choice between casting a bunch of my debuffing spells in the hopes that they’ll chip away at his defenses so I can chip away at his health while I buff the hell out of my own characters and hope no one debuffs me and keeping my characters healthy–given the choice between that and just clicking the little button that says “story mode” and just throwing my pikmin at it while I just sit back and watch–

Well, as Andrew Plotkin once said, “I am a player; therefore, I am lazy.”

Defeating Demogorgon gives you a couple of lines of the DLC’s storyline finishing and a bunch of XP–enough to gain a single level around the time I beat him–and nothing else. You don’t get any magic items or any equipment that I could figure–the Steam version doesn’t even give you a cheevo for your efforts. It’s a huge amount of challenge for little reward. I guess Demogorgon is intended to be an optional Super-Big Monster that only the most challenge-hungry players will face, and maybe that’s how he was received Back In The Day–certainly I didn’t get upset that I couldn’t defeat Kangaxx the Lich, figuring, okay, he’s for the really hardcore. Maybe I’m just playing it with a 2017 mindset, where I think that you should be able to beat the final boss if you were fine to beat the rest of the game. I have this weird, weird notion that an impossible challenge is less satisfying than a mild challenge if you have enough fanfare. The joy of RPGs is the joy of taking your level 1 character who got slaughtered by a pack of gibberlings, leveling her up to the cap, and wiping the floor with them. And certainly strategy has a major place in these games. But whatever strategy it took to beat Demogorgon, I couldn’t click onto it, and it was in no way a satisfying fight for me.

I’m about 2/3rds of the way through Throne of Bhaal at the moment, and all I’ll say about it so far is that the Demogorgon fight is a really good introduction to the design philosophies behind ToB. Watcher’s Keep was an excellent dungeon and I recommend it wholeheartedly; if you don’t feel like finishing the thing, though, I won’t blame you at all.

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105 – I Have Beaten Baldur’s Gate 2!

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 10.42.05 PMThe latter chapters of Baldur’s Gate 2 felt like padding, but man, did the game stick the landing. Chapter 7 takes place in two parts–an elf city that Irenicus is laying waste to, and a hell dimension where you battle his soul once and for all or something. (Metaphysics in these games gets kind of fuzzy for me.)

In practice, there’s not much different between this chapter’s areas and the ones in 4 and 5–a small, linear place, heavy combat focus–but at this point, the tight focus and pace makes sense, feels right. This is endgame: We’re funneling to our goal, and anything left is a distraction. That kind of pace feels restrictive when in midgame chapters, but when we’re approaching the final boss, that acceleration is great.

I don’t normally like Infinity Engine final bosses–Sarevok and Behlifet are difficult beyond what their games warrant, and I seem to remember Icewind Dale 2’s final bosses being way above my party’s pay grade–but I loved the Irenicus fight, largely because I was able to finish it on my first try. Baldur’s Gate 2 does something interesting with its combat in that, for the most part, direct damage spells are irrelevant. Spells like fireball and magic missile and all of that are staples during Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale; in 2, many of the enemies have magic resistance, and in any case your spells only do so much damage.

Buffing and debuffing become the order of the day–enemies throw up different kinds of shields, and you’ve got to put in similar shields to counter their attacks, and you’ve got different kinds of debuffs and penetration spells, and in some cases, it’s sheer attrition–waiting their shields out and keeping your fighters healthy until their shield fizzles away and you can whap away some HP. Irenicus’s first form is a mage battle; his second, he goes into slayer form and has a few friends helping him, and by now I’ve gotten so used to the engine–I have, after all, am working on my second playthrough of the entire franchise–that while I wouldn’t call it easy, man, I’m pretty decent at playing Infinity Engine games.

I’ll probably have some thoughts on my journey as a whole when I’m done, but as for Baldur’s Gate 2, one thing that’s been on my mind throughout this game is a line I half remember from, of all things, the GoG.com installer which, as many of you may know, pops up little advertisements for other games they sell. Their ad for Baldur’s Gate 2 mentions that BG2 is an RPG that’s “considered one of the best ever”. I’ve played so, so many RPGs over the years that I’m pretty qualified to evaluate that statement, and–with some caveats–I’d say it’s fairly accurate. In terms of what it brings to the table as far as breadth and depth, it’s pretty unmatched; its characterization of the world is excellent; it feels like a major adventure, and completing it feels like an accomplishment.

I just wish the game had been a little more even. What makes Baldur’s Gate 2 great is the large nonlinear sections of chapters 2-3 (and the bits of cleanup you do in chapter 6)–not the linear journey of 4-5. It’s a fine line to tread, though–my issue with Skyrim, for example, is its aimlessness, is that there’s too much to do, and that you never really do focus in on your main quest unless you want to. Skyrim is the kind of game that’s too unwilling to make choices for you–this is Your Adventure and You Can Do Whatever You Want In It, even if that means being one of those assholes who writes a blog about ignoring all the quests and hanging out in town farming cabbages. Baldur’s Gate 2 decides, at some point, that the main quest needs to take over, that you’ve bummed around its world long enough, and that it’s time to get down to business. I respect that…but I can’t say I enjoyed it fully.

Like I have said–a shorter midgame would have perfected BG2. But of course I am coming at the game from a particular position–that of it being 2017 and I have so many games to play, because games are really cheap commodities; and I’m 35 and I work for a living so I am not spending a dozen hours every day playing. (I mean, admittedly, the lion’s share of my free time is spent gaming–it’s not like I just duck into these things for a half hour every few days.) Tightness and minimalism are things I value at this point in my life, but that’s not to say I don’t enjoy a large, sprawling game–I wouldn’t be into RPGs if I didn’t–and, honestly, it’s not as if Chapters 4 and 5 take up two dozen hours on their own. Still, less is more, says the fellow who’s written about 10 posts on this game alone. And I do like that BG2 doesn’t quite play it safe. The game comes from a place of both supreme confidence–after BG1, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment, the Infinity Engine knows what it’s doing–and heavy experimentation–because RPGs were still a very niche genre at the time, and because in general this period of time, for PC games, was a period of high experimentation.

In a way, it’s making me very excited for Pillars of Eternity 2–you can see a lot of parallels between the Infinity Engine and the Pillars engine–the two franchises mirror each other in many ways. PoE is an obvious standin for Baldur’s Gate, being a sprawling woodsy adventure that sometimes collapses under its own ambitions but remains fascinating even for every time it falters; Tyranny and Icewind Dale are weird side adventures that a lot of people don’t quite like but remain trimmer, more linear, more focused; and Torment: Tides of Numenera is an obvious cousin of Planescape: Torment. 20 years later, PoE2 might be a reincarnation of Baldur’s Gate 2, and I look forward to seeing the improvements it makes on its predecessors.

Ah fuck, every time I mention Pillars of Eternity I remember that I plan on replaying it in time for the sequel to come out. That’s a hundred hours I’ve got to brace myself for.

104 – Baldur’s Gate 2: I Am Getting Tired

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 7.53.33 PMThe Underdark was not so bad this time around. Due to being at higher levels, having better equipment, and a greater familiarity with the engine, I got through Chapter 5 in roughly two days of play. The Beholders gave me little trouble, the Kuo-Toa dungeon was easy, and even the Mind Flayers fell pretty easily.

Honestly, the only problem here is how unnecessary it all was.

I had thought that the structure of Chapter 5 would make more sense in context–that perhaps it would seem more relevant to the larger picture–but your diversions in the Underdark is just that–a diversion. Irenicus has a connection to the Elves, and the Drow in the Underdark are of course at war with the Elves, and that war breaks out in the end–but what strikes me about Chapter 5 is how relatively unconnected to the rest of the game it all is. It’s at least a little more dense than the pirate village, or the Sahaugin City, but it’s a series of fetch quests. You spend your time with the Drow in the Underdark being bossed around from one sidequest to another; the sprawling freedom that is the hallmark of the early stages of Baldur’s Gate 2 is completely gone at this point.

In many ways, the Underdark is pretty important to the lore of the Forgotten Realms; it’s a pretty evocative concept. Underneath the earth, it goes, is a massive series of caverns, of Dark Elf cities, of fantastical and horrifying creatures. In practice, it’s, you know, a big cave with a bunch of enemies. The terror that could be here just doesn’t translate well to the Infinity Engine–there’s a distance in the isometric perspective, a tone in the writing that never really hits fear. The biggest reason for the Bhaalspawn to visit the Underdark is, if I may be cynical, because there’s no other place to fit it in in any of the other games in the franchise. It would honestly have made sense as an Icewind Dale 2 dungeon–it fits that style well, being a combat dungeon with some twists.

Chapter 6, meanwhile, moves as quickly as you like it to. There’s a couple of additional areas which are completely pointless–a couple of enemies, a treasure or two, and a small adventure involving the BG1 character Coran which apparently came at the insistence of an annoying fan on the boards or something–but it really is a “finishing up the loose ends” chapter. A fight with Bodhi the Vampire, and it’s off to Chapter 7 and the endgame, where I am right now. Depending on how long that segment is, I can probably beat the game in one session, maybe two. It’s good: I’m ready for it to end.

Look, Baldur’s Gate 2 is a masterpiece, it’s just too much masterpiece. Had I the opportunity to remake the game, you’d go directly from Athkatla to Spellhold, and after your adventures in Spellhold, you’d go right back to Athkatla for the endgame. The “journey” segments of the game take away from the focus of what you’re doing. It dilutes everything. They’re fun in and of themselves, sure–but what Baldur’s Gate 2 does best is density. The city of Athkatla has gone down in history as one of the great RPG cities; the Drow city of Ust Natha is an afterthought in comparison. There’s obviously the urge, in an RPG, to make a long, sprawling epic, but man, that’s what kills a lot of RPGs. Few people even finish these damn things as it is–they don’t need to be longer. They don’t need to be padded.

At least BG2 is trying to give the sense of a huge world; even if the Underdark doesn’t add anything to the story, even if the Sahaugin City is a side journey, the picaresque feel of the latter half of the game does make the world seem large and vibrant. I’m thinking about Pillars of Eternity which was a legitimately wonderful game, an excellent successor to the Infinity Engine–and one where half of the areas could have been cut, where a lot of the map areas had no encounters beyond a few combats but otherwise simply existed as a way to get between Point A and Point B.

But then again, people complained that Tyranny–a tight, lean game which featured no extraneous areas, no combats for their own sake, no areas simply meant as bridges between two other regions–was too short, so I guess you can’t win with these things.

Next time you hear from me, I’ll be telling you how the final battle with Irenicus went. Wish me luck.

95 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Irenicus’s Dungeon

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 8.06.16 AM.pngOf the Infinity Engine games, Baldur’s Gate 2 has the finest introduction. Baldur’s Gate 1 begins with Candlekeep, which is, as I’ve said, comfortable and friendly but not exactly exciting–it’s a tutorial-focused quest where nothing much happens until the end, at which point you’re thrust into a gigantic world with only vague direction. Siege of Dragonspear’s first dungeon has nothing to do with anything. Icewind Dale sets you up in a town where you can either Talk To All These Assholes until you find a couple goblins to fight. Planescape Torment wakes you up in the Morgue, and you’re given all of these cryptic suggestions at the larger story, but there isn’t exactly a time pressure and it did lose me the first time or two I played. Icewind Dale 2 acquits itself well–you land in a city under siege–but it’s a long, extended sequence with many parts. (I’m fond of games that essentially have no intro–that start off and you’re simply playing, and ID2 does that well!)

Baldur’s Gate 2 starts off with you captured and held in the dungeon of Big Bad Jon Irenicus. He appears, says some cryptic things, tortures you a bit, and then leaves to deal with an assault on his dungeon. Imoen appears (he-ya, it’s her!), sets you free, and now the two of you plus any companions you can get have the opportunity to wander around and escape. It’s the best starter dungeon in the franchise, and, frankly, should be taught in schools because it’s actually one of RPGdom’s best starter dungeons. It:

Is not a tutorial: There’s pretty no “how to play this” information given in the section. If you’re here for the second installment, the game assumes, you know what you’re doing, and if not, you’ll read the manual. This frees the dungeon up to be pretty cool–while combats are certainly simpler than they’re going to get, you’re facing bunches of goblins and some new foes and you’re doing some actual puzzle challenges. None of Baldur’s Gate 1’s “Go into the thing behind me and get a thing and then talk to me again.”

Tells you what to expect for characters: Baldur’s Gate 1 has about 500 potential playable characters; 2 trims down the cast while giving those left expanded roles. Khalid and Dynahier are slaughtered between installments. While I could give a tinker’s damn about Khalid, it gives his wife Jaheira a lot of fun emotions to work with and some clear motivation. Dynahier is a loss–one of my favorite characters both mechanically and personality-wise. It’s fridging, but at least it’s equal-opportunity. (Hey, Siege of Dragonspear, when you were busy telling your story about nothing at all interesting, why didn’t you, you know, include these moments? This is something I actually was interested in!) We also get an introduction to Yoshimo, who is going to have a big role in the plot to come, and in addition, he’s of the Bounty Hunter class–a “class kit” (alternate build) for the Thief, so even that’s new!

Shows off the expanded dialogue: Character dialogue was largely reduced to barks in the original Baldur’s Gate–characters don’t really comment on the particular situation you’re in, they only slightly interact with each other, and they’re mostly just people you have along for the ride: There’s little difference between the pregenerated characters in Baldur’s Gate and the people you create in Icewind Dale. In BG2, which is the start of Bioware becoming Bioware, your party members will initiate conversations with you and with each other, ones where you can choose between multiple bits of dialogue. Many of them have personal quests, if I’m remembering correctly. The reduced cast gives everyone left more opportunity to get their personalities fleshed out.

–Characterizes the main villain: Irenicus has very little screen time so far: A minute at the beginning of the dungeon and another minute at the end. During that time, he tortures you, makes cryptic portents about your potential, brutally kills a few fantasy cops, and figures out a way to legally abscond with your friend Imoen–in just a few short strokes, he’s already a more effective villain than Sarevok. If that isn’t enough, his dungeon is spent giving you a lot of clues to who this fellow is: His dungeon has a bunch of denizens, all of whom talk about his cruelty, his lack of emotion. Other characters allude to his past and great changes in the man’s character. There’s a soft bedroom filled with pretty things–a shrine to a lost love that several characters insist is an emotion Irenicus cannot feel–and the moment you enter, a klaxon bursts out and a pair of golems attack. Irenicus is a violent, terrifying figure with a very large plan and a complicated personality and he’s the fellow you’ll be chasing after for the next 50-10- hours.

–Alludes to larger plot developments: The assault on Irenicus’s dungeon has nothing to do with you–it’s the result of a “guild war”, which is something we’ll learn about in the next chapter or two. I love RPGs where your character isn’t the focus of every plot, and that’s the case here–the couple of assassins you talk to don’t even give a shit who you are, they’re just trying to kill everyone in the dungeon. It’s nothing personal. But you are important, too–all of Irenicus’s portents add up to you being even more special than you know. Baldur’s Gate’s closing hours reveal that you’re the child of Bhaal, God of Murder; BG2 promises to go into what, exactly, that means.

Features the weirder shit: Sure, there’s goblins living in the dungeon, but there’s also Dryads, mephits, and a portal to the Elemental Plane of Air and a djinn inside. There’s arcane magic and horrific experiments. We’re going to see a lot of the more outre elements of the Forgotten Realms setting before this game is done. But what I particularly like–especially in contrast to Dragonspear’s random “Well, let’s have Demons! Here’s a Lemure! Isn’t that cool!” in the zero hour, BG2 ties them in. Not only is all of this weird shit living in the dungeon, but it’s under Irenicus’s control. He’s captured that. That’s another characterization of him: He’s playing with some very dangerous things, and he’s contained them very well.

I am expecting to have some fun with this.

89 – Icewind Dale

–Replaying Icewind Dale after playing Icewind Dale 2 is instructive in how much more ID2 is. I love these games–it’s my favorite of the 3 Infinity Engine subseries, and I’m trying to figure out why. It doesn’t have the narrative heft of Planescape or the questy open-worldness of Baldur’s Gate. What it does have is an extremely tight structure. Baldur’s Gate’s looseness works against it a little bit–until you know the shape of it, it’s difficult to know where to go and when to do it. Sometimes you need to rush to the next area, sometimes you’re expected to meander and level up a bit. It is a structurally weird beast, but it’s also the kind of bad structure that, when you’re used to it, does make a lot of sense. BGII, the one and only time I played it, felt like it was going to be a freeform, open-world game set largely in and around a single, large city, until the point when you leave the city and go on a huge number of difficult adventures in the Underdark, at which point you realize you should have stayed in the city for a much longer time than you thought and so everything is a lot harder than it should be. I enjoy Baldur’s Gate much more during each replay, and when I decide it’s time to play II again, knowing how I should approach it will make it a much better game, I think.

Icewind Dale is much simpler. You’re given a single dungeon, and you’re expected to crawl. It is a firehose of combat. It’s some of the best incarnation of combat in the IE series, I think–probably my favorite druid build. There is, usually, only one thing to do at a time, and the dungeons are more winding than sprawling. You don’t have a lot of choice in this videogame. But that’s okay–it works for it. Icewind Dale 2’s dungeons have more in the way of gimmicks–I use the term positively–and the writing takes your classes and races and alignments into account, it’s a much better written game–and maybe that’s the true lost classic, I really hope Beamdog makes an enhanced edition of it. But for now, Icewind Dale’s crawling is really hitting the spot.

–Traps, however, are complete bullshit. The Infinity Engine silently ticks down rounds, and as far as I can tell, each round your thief is detecting traps there’s a skill-based chance that they’ll detect one and a section of the dungeon or treasure chest will flash red and you can disarm it. The problem is, this is a slow process and success is not guaranteed, and so in order to make it through certain hallways without damage, you’ve got to put your thief in, and hang out for a moment. The whole process is slow and laborious and there’s no advantage to it–it’s not like you get any XP for disarming in this game. Particularly considering how you can rest at any time and there are no resources consumed when you do so, it’s just a stupid holdover from the tabletop days.

I seem to remember Tyranny having traps be detected instantly and the checks to disarm never being particularly difficult. They’re even more useless there–even though you do get XP, it’s not as if you ever get caught in one. Just give me the free XP. As influential as the Infinity Engine is–and rightfully so!–I wish we as a society had given the traps a wide berth. I wish the Enhanced Editions gave the option to disable them entirely.

–The other area where the Infinity Engine falls is its handling of persistent area-effect spells. Icewind Dale depends on a lot of them–throw down a web and get the enemies stuck there, then throw down a Stinking Cloud and watch them go unconscious, then shoot some thornbushes into the area to lacerate their unconscious, stuck forms, maybe put a cloud of fire–there’s a lot of stuff you can do if you set up the geometry right, and the magical effects in ID are particularly pretty. The problem is, the spells all have a set time that they fire for. The game doesn’t let you save or rest while they’re proccing, which makes a lot of sense–the game doesn’t let you do either in combat, and you wouldn’t want to create an unwinnable situation where you’ve trapped your own party in a death room–but there’s no way to stop the spells. There are a lot of situations where you’ve defeated all the enemies you’re facing, but your spike traps and webs are still firing and so your party just hangs out cleaning their fingernails until a minute or so later the spell finally dissipates and you can save and rest.

It’s not a game killer, obviously, but I guess this and the handling of traps make the games a little slower than they quite need to be. You get a Dispel spell; it would be nice if that stopped the area spells, but it doesn’t.